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4.8 out of 5 stars
Memoir
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77 of 78 people found the following review helpful
on 13 December 2005
If you are already familiar with the novels and short stories of John McGahern then not much of this will come as a surprise: the overbearing father; the mother’s death; the recurrent allure of Oakport.
But this compelling autobiography is far more than a journey over old ground: in ordering and expanding those elements he has used in his fiction, McGahern has finally given us a vivid, comprehensive map of his unique terrain. It can be read and enjoyed in its own right but there is an additional pleasure in seeing the scattered pieces of his fiction assembling themselves into a single coherent shape.
McGahern’s relationship with his brutal father dominates the book but this is no howl of rage or score-settling: the son examines his father as far as he is able (and there is a pleasure for the reader in the precision of that examination) but by the end seems to accept there is only so much he can understand. And despite the strong shadow his father casts, joy is interwoven throughout the account, in his relationship with his mother, in his capacity for delight in the familiar landscape (even when carrying out the many tasks imposed on him by his father) and in the moments of stolen solitariness in the boat at Oakport which prefigure his becoming a writer.
Shorn of sentimentality or pseudo-poeticism, John McGahern’s Memoir feels like the culmination of his writing life. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
The master has passed and we must learn to go on without him.
He once wrote the writer's task was "to look after his sentences, nothing more". And so it is. But his sentences were always lost in the reality he touched - often painful, sometimes beautiful. He was unfailingly brave.
Memoir maybe confirms things we already knew, or things we once glimpsed, in his life and in ours, for sure in mine. It's an account of his childhood, the non-fictional version of his fiction - as if these terms made any sense with regard to his work.
As it turns out, he was tidying up before he would pass. And now he's gone.
Thank you, John McGahern, for everything.
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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on 1 April 2006
I have read that, sadly, John McGahern has recently died. I spent most of Boxing Day 05 reading this book, in virtually one shot as I could hardly bear to put it down, it was such a delight to read. It is beautifully written and tells the story of the author's Irish childhood and of how it placed him intellectually and emotionally as an adult in the larger world. It reads honestly, his love for his mother is intensely moving, the writing is rhythmical and measured. It made me cry, but my tears were unusual, because they were not drawn from easy sentimentality or from pity. I felt grateful to the author for sharing an emotionally lucid and truthful recollection of his early life which drew me into his family in his world, so far from my own.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 23 February 2007
Ireland has been blessed with many brilliant writers over the years and John McGahern is up there with the very best. Beautifully written, I found the pages that dealt with the death of his mother some of the most moving that I have read and the passage often comes back to me. Also interesting to see that so many of the themes he uses in his other books have their roots in his own upbringing.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on 16 April 2006
A great book. It's rich in detail about that part of Ireland (Co. Leitrim) in the 40s and 50s and McGahern's prose transports the reader to the characters, fields, noises and streets of those days. His love for his mother is told with poetic feeling and is unbearably moving in parts not least when they revisit the vacant house after her funeral. He's just as effective in capturing the shift in power in the relationship he has with his brutish father. The other characters of family and friends are clearly drawn as is the role of the Catholic church in McGahern's life. Perhaps he is too fleeting in last quarter about his adult life but there may have not been enough time. Wonderful.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 10 May 2008
John McGahern's Memoir (like his life) is dominated by the figure of his father - a tyrant, unpredictably violent and charming by turn. I longed for the boy to grow up and and achieve his independence, but this too is threatened and harassed by the pull of his father. One aspect which disturbs him greatly is that he can find no explanation:

"I knew him better by then than I knew any living person, and yet I had never felt I understood him, so changeable was he, so violent, so self-absorbed, so many-faced. If it is impossible to know oneself, since we cannot see ourselves as we are seen, then it may be almost as difficult to understand those close to us, whether that closeness be of enmity or love or their fluctuating tides. We may have an enormous store of experience and knowledge, psychological and otherwise, but we cannot see fully because we are too close, still too involved."

The father is also a representation for the authoritarian, over-bearing parental Irish state, whose political and religious authorities, the forces of law and order and the educational establishment all form part of the same controlling force - one the Stazi would have been proud of!

"Much has been written about the collusion of Church and State to bring about an Irish society that was childish, repressive and sectarian, and this narrative hardly suggest otherwise. People, especially young people, will find ways around a foolish system, and difficulty can often serve to sharpen desire, but many who could not were damaged or were driven into damaged lives."

Perhaps most damaging and damning is the fact that no one would even say a word against the father, even in private, never mind take a stand to prevent him abusing his children. (Ireland has changed greatly in recent years and this book will leave you in no doubt that change was needed!)

"There was also something dark or foreboding in his personality that made people reluctant to speak about him, and he himself never offered an explanation for anything he ever did."

McGahern's attachment to his mother brings further tragedy with her early death. Her character - loving and loved, constant, amenable, patience and forgiving, was in total contrast to his father's.

Escape came from fishing and reading, sometimes together, on a boat on the river. The author was not blind to the beauties of the gentle countryside and the gentle way of life, one to which he returned in later life. And the simple childhood walk to school (and church) is much repeated until it becomes a lyric:

"...past Brady's pool and Brady's house and the house where the old Mahon brothers lived, past the deep, dark quarry and across the railway bridge and up the hill past Mahon's shop to school."

Growing up the books he most appreciated gave a "mirror on life" and that is what we are given here. It is astonishing that a story so personal and harrowing could be told so frankly without any obvious cover-up, dramatics or bitterness. Thankfully, there is little attempt at analysis and barely a trace of self-pity - no mention of being a victim.

The whole is a lot less morbid than this summary might suggest. The beauty is in the truth.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 9 December 2011
whether you were brought up in Ireland in the 50's or the 70's, this book reflects the culture and atmosphere of the country over this period.The author's account of his childhood is achingly beautiful, from the cold brutality of his father to the gentle strength and consuming love of his mother, I found it impossible to put down. The descriptions of the rural landscape of Leitrim coupled with the death of his mother, are lyrical, poignant and incredible sad, yet McGahern is never sentimental. I loved it.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 16 April 2006
Love's lifelong branding of itself into the psyche of some human beings can seem almost cruel in the way it forces them to expose themselves to us. From the heart-shredding fictional obsessions of Jack and Ennis in Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain to the resurrectional purity of John McGahern's love for his mother - dead before his 10th birthday - in Memoir, we sometimes get to see life with savage, christening clarity.

Memoir is the centrepiece of the jigsaw McGahern has had us put together throughout his life as a novelist. If his mother had been cast as his father's wife in any piece of fiction readers would have tossed it aside as being incredible. How could a woman of such piety, empathy, intelligence and love have married a man whose hatred of the world spouted like pus on to his family and those he deemed below him in the social pecking order?

McGahern senior, police sergeant and ex IRA man, deceives himself that others, including his wife and children, will judge him for how he chooses to portray himself at any time. a real-life ham actor who is immersed in the characters he becomes as his moods dictate them. Such is John McGahern's skill and his tendency towards objectivity that some might weep for the desperate childishness of his father who, we never doubt, is beyond redemption.

But what redeems everything is McGahern's love for his mother. Mothers and children everywhere share deep love but McGahern, without mawkishness or sentimetality, makes me believe that his longing for the presence beside him of his mother was what formed his life from birth to his recent death. I can never imagine feeling again such a mixture of emotions when I heard he had died of cancer in Dublin (his mother died of breast cancer). Terrible sorrow at the loss of such a brilliant writer. Huge joy at the thought he breathed his last with the thought that his mother would be waiting for him. The final paragraph of Memoir touches with all the more poignancy in the knowledge that, now, John can make it come true.
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on 24 April 2015
One of the very best memoirs I have ever read. McGahern's beautifully nuanced writing draws you into the world of 1950/60's Leitrim, with its inhabitants, its fields, streams, foxgloves and wild strawberries in summer. And also the poignancy of childhood loss, love and hate and bewilderment, the gradual growing mind of an adolescent keen to learn and become free from the tyranny of a moody, brutally inconsistent father.
"We come from darkness into light and grow in the light until at death we return to the original darkness. Those early years of light are also a partial darkness because we have no power or understanding and are helpless in the face of the world. This is one of the great miseries of childhood. Mercifully, it is quickly absorbed by the boundless faith and energy and the length of the changing day of the child. Not even the greatest catastrophe can last the whole length of that long day."

John McGahern also writes about "the joy of the world", the loving legacy left by his mother, the turmoiled family life with his siblings, the humour, generosity and limitations of local people, the gifts and restrictions of the Catholic church, his opening up to a world of reading, writing and ideas. His depiction of his father comes across as devastatingly fair and balanced. The writing is so engaging and true, the experience of reading this Memoir stays with me in an enriching way. Highly recommended.
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on 6 August 2014
I simply could not put this book down. The way it is written is beautiful. How McGahern describes his wonderful 'beloved' mother will leave you in bits. My father is from Leitrim and recommended this book to me. A true talent that I can't find words befitting enough. A emotional read but one I will read again. I immediately bought another McGahern book upon finishing this.
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